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Acts 16:16-40: Of Songs and Shackles Print E-mail

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How we respond to the difficulties in our lives makes plain what we truly value and treasure.  As Christians, people are watching to see how various trials affect us.  What do we do when we lose our job?  How do we respond when we face persecution?  When the diagnosis looks bleak, where do we turn?  We might not like to admit it, but what we truly believe about God is revealed in those moments.  And if I am honest, I don't always like what I see in myself.  If every difficulty that I face is an opportunity to show what I treasure, then what do I treasure?  What does my response to difficulties say about my God?

Our passage this morning finds our missionaries being thrown into jail.  We might be tempted to immediately view that as a curse on the second missionary journey, but as we see in the text it is not.  In fact, The Lord uses the situation as a great blessing in their lives and in the lives of the others involved.  A church is born from these difficulties and it will prove to be a great encouragement to the Apostle Paul.  So then, what happens? 

Rejection (v. 16-24)

The story begins with an odd situation.  Look at verses 16-17.  We left Paul and Silas and the others in Philippi working among Lydia and the other women.  As they were going to the place of prayer, they were stopped by a slave girl, who Luke describes as having an unclean spirit. When she sees the missionaries she keeps crying out: 'These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.'  Now, to be sure, I have heard worse insults, so why is this such a big deal?  As we see in the ministry of Jesus, it seems that the problem is that the men did not want to be connected with such spirits.  They did not want demons announcing their arrival and their mission.  So what do they do?  Look at verse 18.  Paul decides to free this poor girl from her affliction and so he casts the spirit out.  She is actually the first to be rescued in this passage.  Although we are not told if she became a follower of Jesus or not, it stands to reason that she did considering what happened in her life. 

Unfortunately, her owners were not pleased with Paul's actions.  Look at verses 19-24.  The owners of the girl were upset because they no longer could make money off of the girl.  So they seized Paul and Silas and drug them before the magistrates, who were two men in charge of the city.  The owners accuse Paul and Silas of disturbing the peace and introducing unlawful customs.  The real gist of their accusation is that they are Jews and they are ‘not like us Romans.’ Of course, such an approach worked due to the anti-Semitic views in the area.  The crowd joined in and the magistrates gave orders to beat them and throw them in jail.  This is probably one of the three beatings that Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 11:25.  He was stoned on the first missionary journey and now you can add a beating and imprisonment in stocks.  Even though they were Roman citizens and had done nothing illegal, the people in Philippi rejected them and punished them.  Once again we see that some will reject the message of the gospel no matter how much good we may be trying to do.

Rescue (v. 25-34)

How will Paul and Silas respond to such treatment?  Imagine the scene.  They are bruised and bloodied from the beating.  They are laying in darkness in the middle of a dank jail, fighting to find relief from the stocks that are on their feet.  They are uncertain about what is going to happen when the sun comes up.  How would you feel?  How would you respond?  Look at how they respond in verse 25.  Pretty amazing.  I would love to hear them singing!  I would love to hear that praise!  Stott writes: "Not groans but songs came from their mouths.  Instead of cursing men, they blessed God.  No wonder the other prisoners were listening to them." 1  If you were in that prison that night, I bet you would have been listening too.  It is hard to ignore those who sing to their God even in the darkest of nights.

So what happens?  Look at verse 26.  The Lord sends an earthquake that breaks the foundations of the prison and sets them free from their shackles.  Surely the Lord wants them to run out into the street!  He has sent the earthquake to get them out of prison.  Well, not exactly.  Look at what happens in verses 27-30.  The jailer wakes up and realizes he is in trouble.  He assumes that all of the prisoners have escaped during his watch and therefore he decides to take his own life.  But Paul interrupts him.  When the jailer calls for lights, he discovers that the prisoners are still there. We often think about the Lord sending the earthquake to free Paul and Silas, but really, the Lord sent the earthquake to open this door to speak the gospel to the jailer.  The Lord is not merely going to rescue Paul and Silas from physical prison, He is going to rescue the jailer and his household from an even worse imprisonment.  So when the jailer asks how to be saved, Paul and Silas respond with the gospel.  Look at verses 31-34.  Paul tells them the glorious good news of what Jesus has done.  He tells them that they can be saved by repenting of their sins and believing in His death and resurrection.  Luke tells us that not only did the jailer believe, but his whole household did as well.

Step back for a moment and take in this whole scene.  Paul and Silas got arrested for helping a slave girl.  They got beat and thrown in jail for freeing someone from slavery to a spirit.  In jail, they sang to God and gained the attention of the other prisoners.  Then God sent an earthquake and instead of running free, all the prisoners just remained where they were. All of this opened the door for Paul and Silas to share the gospel with this family so they could be saved.  No wonder they were all rejoicing in the work of God!  God had a plan to rescue a girl from imprisonment to a spirit and a jailer and his family from imprisonment to sin.  Part of that plan involved the imprisonment of Paul and Silas, but the Lord rescued them as well.  Our God is a God who rescues the imprisoned.  It does not always happen in one night, but the Lord is faithful to rescue the broken and the needy.

Release (v. 35-40)

On the next day, the magistrates decide that Paul and Silas should be let go.  The jailer brings the news to Paul in verses 35-36.  Look at those with me.  We are not sure why they wanted to let them go, but they were ready to release them.  Yet, Paul was not ready to go just yet.  Look at his response in verse 37.  What is Paul doing here?  Paul knows that they have been mistreated by the magistrates.  He knows that they have acted illegally by beating Romans citizens without a trial.  He also knows that how he responds to this situation could impact the young Church in Philippi.  He does not want them to be accused in the future of unlawful activity, so he sends for the magistrates to set the record straight.  They respond in verses 38-39.  Look at those with me.  Paul dealt with the situation in such a way as to protect the new believers in Philippi.  He tells them goodbye in verse 40.  Look at that with me.  Through the visits with Lydia and the healing of slave girl and their imprisonment and release, a small band of believers had been formed in the city.  This would be the Church in Philippi, to whom Paul would later write. 

Throughout the history of the Church, Paul and Silas are not the only believers who have been arrested for their faith.  There are countless Christians in the world today who are in prison because of their belief in Jesus Christ.  But I bet they don’t have the faith of Paul and Silas.  I bet they don’t respond in the same way as them.  And I bet the Lord doesn’t use such circumstances to bring others to faith.  I mean, who believes in a God who allows His people to be put in prison?

Nik Ripken tells a couple of stories in his book “The Insanity of God” that challenge those assumptions.  He tells of Dmitri, a man from Russia, who started to have a Bible study in his home because the closest Church was a three-day trip from their house.   The Bible study grew from his family alone to around seventy-five people, packed into his apartment, desperate to hear the Word taught by an untrained man who loved Christ.  Eventually the authorities came and arrested Dmitri.  He spent the next seventeen years in jail.  He was just trying to teach his kids the Bible, just trying to encourage the community, and it landed him in jail.  So how did Dmitri respond?  For seventeen years, he would get up every morning and begin his day by singing praise to God.  He would find scraps of paper and write Scripture and songs on them and post them in his cell.  One day he found a whole sheet of empty paper and he filled it with praise to God.  When his jailer found it, they drug him out of the cell and were taking him to be executed.  As they went down the prison to the courtyard, Dmitri said 1,500 prisoners began singing the song that he had sung every morning for seventeen years.  Shocked at what was taking place, one the guards asked him who he was and he responded: “I am a son of the Living God, and Jesus is His name!”  Shortly after this experience, Dmitri was released. 2

There is still faith today that will cause a man to sing for seventeen years in prison.  What gives a man such faith?  His belief in the gospel.  When you believe that you really are a sinner deserving of God’s righteous wrath, and you understand that God loved you so much that He gave His only Son to pay for your sins at the cross, setting you free from all your chains and bringing you into His family, then your faith will sing no matter what shackles this world might place upon you.  So then, let me ask you: how will you respond to difficulty?  You may never spend a night in jail for your proclamation of the gospel, but if you faithfully follow after Christ and become a witness to His resurrection, then the dark nights will come.  Paul has told us that they will come (Acts 14:22).  When they do, what will be your response?  I pray for us all that when difficulties come, the world will see clearly that we treasure Christ above all.  Let them take our comfort, our stuff of the ground, our freedom, and let us respond with praise to the God who has saved us through the crushing of His own Son.  May the grace of our God, the love of our God, the mercy of our God, as seen in the work of our Savior, cause us to sing with everything that we are when the difficulties come, so that all may know that He is our treasure.  Amen.

1 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts TBST (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 267.
2 Nik Ripkin, The Insanity of God (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013), p. 151ff.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 16 September 2014 )

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